Montgomery County Executive speaks during a press conference Thursday afternoon in Rockville. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

A two-year initiative to inspect Montgomery County apartments yielded more than 31,000 housing code violations and 130 properties with significant problems, County Executive Marc Elrich announced Thursday.

Over the past two years, county inspectors evaluated more than 22,000 apartment units at 684 buildings. Each building was assigned a label of compliant, at-risk or “troubled,” based on the number and severity of violations found.

Two-thirds were deemed compliant, 112 were classified as at-risk and 130 were dubbed “troubled properties.”

Elrich said the data provide a baseline for county leaders to use to enhance living conditions for the roughly 40% of county residents who rent.

“We had a history of inspecting some units in some buildings, but when you inspect some units, you can cite them all for violations but the other 80% or 90% of the units that weren’t inspected might have the same violations but they aren’t forced to fix those,” Elrich said. “This is going to put an end to that.”

Housing developments on a county “troubled property” list must have at least an annual inspection to ensure safety of tenants, while other properties are to be inspected every three years.

Some serious violations that put apartments on the list are persistent rodent or insect infestations, mold, water leaks and lack of utilities not related to overdue bills.

Once a property is designated as troubled, it remains on the list for at least a year. After that, it can be removed when an inspection shows that violations were corrected.

“It’s not like the housing in this county is cheap. Even the affordable housing in this county by other standards would be expensive, so this is a hard place to live,” Elrich said. “If you’re paying these kind of rents, you’re entitled to decent housing. This is a big step forward for the county.”

The two-year inspection effort was the first of its kind in Montgomery County, according to Elrich, and will help the county focus on the buildings with the most violations.

About 96% of all violations found during the inspection period have been remediated, Elrich said, and the county’s Department of Housing and Community Affairs issued 309 citations for repeat violations during the initiative.

A bill Elrich introduced as a County Council member spurred the inspection surge, but it didn’t pass easily, Council member Tom Hucker said.

For about one year, the bill stalled and didn’t have the support of a majority of the council. But after an August 2016 explosion at Flower Branch apartments in Silver Spring left seven people dead, the bill gained traction.

“While they didn’t contribute to that explosion, there was a spotlight put on longstanding problems in Montgomery County rental housing that necessitated the majority of the council feeling like they needed to step up and do something,” Hucker said. “This bill was sitting there in the right place at the right time.”

Poor rental conditions disproportionately affect low-income families, immigrants and tenants with disabilities, Hucker said, pointing to the Enclave apartments in Silver Spring, where more than 2,500 housing code violations were found in an inspection this year.

About 16% of the violations were considered health and safety problems, including persistent and widespread mold, mice and roach infestations, according to inspectors.

“People are cynical about politicians and say we just are always driven by the polls. Well, nobody fights for tenants’ rights because they think this is really going to help them politically,” Hucker said. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do and … this is a landmark achievement.”

Along with more frequent inspections, the County Council has ramped up efforts to increase renters’ rights.

In June, the council passed legislation that allows renters to break a lease if landlords fail to fix serious housing code violations within 30 days of being ordered to do so by county officials.

Next month, the council will hold a public hearing about proposed legislation requiring landlords in the county to equip their buildings with air conditioning.

The county code currently requires landlords to provide heat, maintain electrical and plumbing systems and provide other basic services. But there is no current requirement that landlords provide air conditioning.

Silver Spring Democratic Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, who is also a board member of the county’s only advocacy group for renters, Renters Alliance, said the county’s efforts set a precedent for the rest of the state.

“Renters homes are truly safer and more stable as a result of this work and this effort,” Wilkins said. “I’m really proud that our county has taken unprecedented steps … in targeting troubled properties in a strategic way.”